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Breaking the Cycle: Camps for children of the incarcerated help a hidden population in need

August 2, 2011

By Val Hymes

Sometime in the last decade, Episcopalians began to notice they were missing an important factor in criminal justice reform – the children.

“Children of parents in prison “are invisible,” said a U. S. Senate report. “No government entity is responsible for them,” There are 2.5 million of them in this country; 1 in 7 children have a parent in prison, on probation or parole and in most cases they are a “hidden population,” says the sponsor of The Prisoner’s Family Conference of 2012.

Abby and Shayna of Camp Amazing Grace in the Diocese of Maryland.

In California, when police came in the night to take away a single mother, a boy of 9 was left alone with his infant sibling. He managed for a while until a neighbor reported her suspicions..  The children were separated and never saw each other again.. Many police departments have no policy regarding children of suspects. Mothers will not mention them for fear they will disappear into the system.

The children are lonely, frightened, suspicious and angry. Another U.S. Senate report predicted that many of them will go to prison too. The Rev. Bill Ticknor, chaplain at Maryland’s Camp Amazing Grace, said he fears that unless there is some form of intervention, he will “only see them next in prison or at their graves.”

The Episcopal Church recognized that vacuum. It happened at a prison ministry conference in 1994 when the Rev. Jackie Means, later director of prison ministry for the church, and the Rev. Stephen Caldwell of the Diocese of Rio Grande, discussed what was missing in prison ministry. “The children,” said Means. “What about camps for the children?”  In a short time, Caldwell had raised money and in 1995 Camp Grace in Santa Fe was born.

Although there is no official count, at least 27 dioceses have tried or explored such a ministry or now have one, helping little ones through difficult times, one child at a time.

These children bring to camp “anger, fear, insecurity, suspicion and shame,” said Means. “They need to know that Jesus loves them as they are. They need a safe place to deal with hard stuff and to be shown respect.”

“To our utter amazement, attitudes and behaviors do get altered in that brief time,” wrote  Caldwell. “Campers are surprised to discover that our love for them is unconditional.”

The camps have names like Promise Camp, Grace Camp, Camp Good News, Camp Caritas and Camp New Hope, Camp Amazing Grace and Camp New Horizons.

A resolution adopted by General Convention in 2006 set aside $65,000 for a three-year commitment to camps for children of prisoners. A similar resolution for support for the camps asking $75,000 in 2009 was adopted but was not funded.

The children, usually 8-12, come to “a safe and loving environment, discover self-worth, broaden their horizons, make positive choices and develop leadership skills. Children and adults are transformed,” said Gay Yerger, staffer at Mississippi’s Camp Caritas.

Camp New Hope, led by Deacon Judy Gann in the Diocese of Oklahoma has been ministering to those children for 15 years, and has a newer camp for the older kids, as does Camp Agape in the Diocese of Easton (Md.)  Camp Amazing Grace offers “graduates” scholarships to diocesan camps.

“The staff gained as much as the children did,” said Sharon McGlaughlin, teacher and Camp Amazing Grace adult leader. “They opened up, trusted in us and we became a family and a true community.”

“We hope to break the cycle of incarceration tearing apart families with a week of healing and emotional support,” said the Rev. Eddie Blue, director of Maryland’s first camp. Maryland begins its sixth year with plans for a year-round program.

Val Hymes is coordinator, Prison Ministry Task Force, Diocese of Maryland, sponsor, Camp Amazing Grace, and editor, PrisMinNet.org

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